David, an Ideal Greek Hero — and other Military Matters in Ancient Israel

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by Neil Godfrey

After too long a hiatus I am excited to at last return to writing about Russell Gmirkin’s new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

The previous two posts:

  1. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
  2. The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look

The following post is far from what I originally intended, but I am posting it very much in the rough for the sake of getting the ball rolling again.

Comparing the stories of David
David the famous warrior was also renowned as a musician and loved by many (though not by his wife, Saul’s daughter) as a dancer.  In other words, David’s had the attributes of a well-rounded educated Athenian.

At age 18 Athenian males (we’re talking about the elite families) undertook an educational program that prepared them for formal citizenship by the age of 20. The three areas of the curriculum were:

  1. Letters — acquiring skills from the alphabet right through to reading Homer and the classics;
  2. Music — learning to play the lyre and training in voice and song;
  3. Gymnastics — a program of fitness training as well as in the use of weapons; dance was also included as a means of instilling a nimbleness necessary in battle.

Athenian festivals featured athletic and combat contests, military parades and mock battles, and dance.


S0038429 David, frontal view. Pre-restoration. Image licenced to Stephen Forsling FORSLING, STEPHEN by Stephen Forsling Usage : - 3000 X 3000 pixels (Letter Size, A4) © Scala / Art ResourceThe David and Goliath conflict parallels the duels between Homeric heroes in the Iliad. Goliath is dressed as a Greek hoplite

  • helmet,
  • greaves,
  • broad sword,
  • long spear (sarissa)
  • and shield carried by shield-bearer.

The large spear indicates knowledge of the transition from the shorter to the longer spear in the Macedonian army from around 350 BCE. David opts to fight as a more agile Greek light infantry soldier (slinger).

David – 1 Sam 16.12; 17.42 – is portrayed in terms of the Greek physical ideal: “lean, athletic male warrior, tanned from exercise in the gymnasium”. “The description of the physique of the warrior hero is mostly absent from Ancient Near Eastern literature. . .” (n. 81 p. 47)

As a figure accomplished by Greek military training, David was also a skillful

  • lyre player (compare the “music therapy” David was able to provide Saul; a trope familiar in Homer and among Pythagoreans as well as in Plato’s Laws.)
  • dancer
  • and songwriter.

These qualities anomalous for a soldier in the Near East but consistent with a youth undergoing Greek instruction in the gymnasium.

Military tales involving David feature

  • familiar aspects of Greek military training:
    • target practice
    • races
    • mock armed contests
  • a familiar Homeric literary motif:
    • gift of armour as sign of friendship


Tribal organization and the military
Athenians between ca 300 and 220 BCE were organized into 12 tribes primarily for military purposes. (They were also used for judicial and political functions.)


Israel’s 12 tribes were primarily military divisions:

  • Numbers 1-3, 10, 26

they marched through the wilderness in these military formations:

  • Numbers 10:14-28

After settled in the land the 12 tribes are portrayed as again coming together for military operations:

  • Judges 7:23-24; 20:1-11; cf. 1 Samuel 4-7
Athenians were enrolled into the army at age 20.


The Book of Numbers records how each tribe enlisted its men from 20 years of age:

  • Numbers 1:2-4
Greek and Hellenistic armies were organized in units of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands (although the units of 10s and 50s were introduced late under Roman influence)


and organized them in their units of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands:

  • Exodus 18:25; Numbers 1:16; 7:85; 10:4; 31:48, 52, 54; Deuteronomy 1:15; Joshua 22:21, 30
Each tribal military unit had its own general (phylarch).


with a general in charge of each tribe’s army:

  • Numbers 1:4-16; 7:1-2
The early Athenian divisions were into four tribes, but each of these four were divided into thirds (trittyes), yielding 12 trittyes.

The system was revamped around 500 BCE to give 10 tribes, each with its own eponymous hero. The 12 trittyes were retained for religious purposes.Around 300 BCE the ten tribes were expanded to 12. (About 220 to 200 BCE they temporarily adopted a 13 tribe system.)

The tribes were not literal family groupings but actually legal fictions. The four founders of the four groups of tribes were said to have been the four sons of Ion.

These 12 tribes were organized in 4 groups, each group consisting of 3 tribes:

  • Numbers 2:1-32

Compare the northern kingdom of Israel consisting of 10 tribes (Joseph divided into two; in 1 Kings we find 2 tribes (Judah and Benjamin) gathering as armed units to fight those 10. So despite the general arrangement of 12 tribes (especially in the pre-monarchical period) there were at times variations of 10, 12 and 13.

Plato in Laws (ca 350 BCE) argued that a 12 tribe system was the optimum.

Around 315 BCE Hecataeus of Abdera wrote Aegyptiaca in which he said that Moses created the system of 12 tribes.

Works about Athenian legal institutions, Plato’s Laws and Hecataeus’s Aegyptiaca were all available in the Great Library of Alexandria when Jewish scholars visited there ca 270 BCE. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the authors of the works that came to form the Hebrew Scriptures had all of these sources available to them.



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44 thoughts on “David, an Ideal Greek Hero — and other Military Matters in Ancient Israel”

  1. Did the Hellenic Alexandrian Library have ‘clay tablets’ ?
    So, I Googled “Akkadian Manuscripts” (yes, ‘manuscripts’).
    A Google book cautions against universal assumptions about Akkadian texts…
    Yet to search: Assyria, Babylon, Ur of Chaldees, Hurrian, Sumerian

  2. What makes the 4th C.CE Greeks so original?
    Can Athens’ demes be the only source?
    Responding to:

    1)”The description of the physique of the warrior hero is mostly absent from Ancient Near Eastern literature…
    2)These qualities anomalous for a soldier in the Near East ….
    3)….Works about Athenian legal institutions, Plato’s Laws and Hecataeus’s Aegyptiaca were all available in the Great Library of Alexandria when Jewish scholars visited there ca 270 BCE”

    Did not The Seventy have “Eastern” written sources?
    Does not pre-Ptolemaic (Nubian) Egypt have any contribution of materials?
    Wiki: After the fall of Assyria between 616 BC and 605 BC, a unified Median state was formed, which together with Babylonia, Lydia, and ancient Egypt became one of the four major powers of the ancient Near East.
    Earlier, Ionia was not separate from Persia, or Phrygia…

    Principles of Akkadian Textual Criticism
    Martin Worthington – 2012 – ‎Literary Criticism
    A reason for the widespread aversion to conjectural emendations ( conjectures for short) may be an unconscious supposition that Akkadian manuscripts are less prone to corruption…
    [the vagaries of cross-cultural translation]

    Unstudied speculation follows :
    1)I ‘guess’ David and Solomon [and perhaps Moses] might be included in the “Dark Age following the end of the New Kingdom and the arrival of iron technology…did nothing literary endure from the 13th to 4th C. BCE
    2) I read that clay tablets of Near Eastern ‘libraries’ had ‘survived’ because they had been burned in a fire… never had I heard they were kept in a soft condition or deliberately baked… )
    3) The ‘naturalism’ of 7th C.BCE bas-reliefs of Assyrian Bulls make Archaic Greek art look pathetic. Presumably, the (formerly Classical) Greeks must have learned something (from someone) by the Hellenistic Period.

    1. You are still leaving me to surmise much of your point. The details in the post point to comparisons we can identify in the different literatures available to us, and of the possibility of whose ancient content we can have some confidence. We cannot compare what we don’t have; Gmirkin regularly points out that literature and other data from the Near Eastern civilizations is in the examples I give here unlike what we find in the Hebrew Scriptures but has matches with the Greek world.

      If you find that point to be fallacious or countered by other evidence then let us know — explicitly. Don’t leave us to guess what point you think we should be taking away from your truncated notes.

  3. Indeed, you are correct,sir.
    My original post of 2016-11-12 21:52:34 UTC…
    was very truncated because there is a lot I don’t know and that we don’t have. Pity.
    As usual, Vridar’s presentation of the examples in the Hebrew Scriptures that have matches with the Greek world was wonderfully clear.

  4. I wonder how Russell Gmirkin’s theories fare in the light of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.

    Before we can draw any conclusions about one text being dependent on the other text, we need to exclude the null hypothesis: namely that there is such a large number of comparisons that we could make, that actually finding some similarities is statistically probable, without any dependencies involved.

    From a statistical point of view, this is equivalent to the following – surprising – statistical result: when we flip a fair coin times, the change of coming up with 9 heads is 1%. Hence, we would conclude that the flips of the coin are not interdependent (which is correct for a fair coin). However, when we flip 100 coins each 10 times, then the chance of finding (at least) one coin that came up heads 9 times is more than 65%!. What would we conclude now about this coin?

    When we take a large body of texts (from ancient Greece) and compare it with another large body of texts (the Hebrew Bible), we can expect to find similarities by chance alone. Clothing might be similar, or similar numbers/amounts are used etc. Are we coming up with a statistically correct conclusion about interdependency?

    1. One way to dismiss the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy is to look for ways the source story explains illogical parts of the dependent story.

      For example, how much does the story of Solomon’s Baby Cleaving (Judgment of Solomon) make sense? It really doesn’t make sense at all. In no real world does cutting a baby in half even approach a sensible outcome, and if the non-mother really thinks that saying half a baby is good enough is clever, then Solomon’s “Wisdom” raises only slightly above the level of complete idiot. All she had do do was copy the reaction of the real mother!

      However, when cast against Alexander’s Gordian Knot, it starts to make a bit more sense. Two young rulers, each presented with a problem, and both think outside the box, both want to cut the problem with a sword. Alexander’s story shows his pragmatism and the use of the sword shows his military prowess. But also, he’s a bit brick-headed, like he didn’t quite get the spirit of the problem.

      Solomon’s story only really makes sense in a world where the Gordian Knot story is well known. In that framework, the plot holes aren’t so important, as it fits the mold of an already accepted story. Solomon proposes to cut the problem in half, but that he doesn’t have to do so shows his cleverness and not needing martial prowess. That is, not his cleverness compared to the real world, nor his cleverness compared to a grieving mother, but his cleverness compared to Alexander the Great.

      Is there a better way to clear up the problems of the Judgement of Solomon than to posit it was told in a world where everyone already knew the legend of the Gordian Knot?

      1. Brilliant! Do we cite you as the source for this explanation?

        The principle is apt. It is when the differences find a cogent explanation that we then have confidence in the hypothesis of literary relationship.

        1. To be honest, this is one of those ideas that I may or may not have come up with, but it’s been banging about in my head for so long I don’t recall where or when I might have read it or if it’s my own theory.

          The principle is clear though, and more formally I think of it as “context dependent error and incongruity resolution”. It’s related to “editorial fatigue” but taken a step further. As in, how many plot holes or mistakes can be resolved if we consider the readers/hearers of the story to be reading through the lens of an already well-known story. It’s something I’ve developed and investigated quite a bit, and this is one fun example I’ve settled on that helps explain weird Greek-sounding stories in the Old Testament.

      2. Is the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy really dismissed this way?

        On the one hand, you have all the stories in Greek literature about Kings, rulers, generals etc. who solve problems. On the other hand, you have all the stories in the bible about Kings, rulers, generals etc. who solve problems. And hey! We find a story in the Greek literature that has some superficial similarity to a bible story.

        I would say that statistics tells us that we are likely to find such a similarity by pure chance (given the large data sets on either side), and we can’t conclude that there is a dependency.

        1. Okay, maybe “dismiss” is too strong a word.

          Just so I know this conversation is worth continuing, is there ANYTHING that you think would convince you that one story is dependent on another? Or will you always just say “But statistically we would expect it”? If so, please do tell me, as I have a book I’m writing on the subject, and could send you some chapters once they are further along.

          1. Thanks Luke, interested in a discussion on this topic.

            A lot has been said and written about literary dependency. Even on this blog (http://vridar.org/2012/05/06/discovering-the-sources-for-the-first-gospel-3-criteria/). In fact, there is a surprisingly large number of sets of criteria in use, which all aim to detect dependency. This indicates that there is (yet) no generally accepted method. Personally, I like MacDonald’s criteria better than some others, since his criteria overlap less among each other.

            Hence, only in rare cases can we determine – or reject – dependency with certainty; I like to approach the question from a probability perspective: how likely is it that one text depends on another (based on some set of criteria), and how does this likelihood compare with the likelihood that some of these criteria are met by pure chance?

            I see (at least….) below pitfalls where a set of criteria is used to demonstrate dependency:

            a) similarities between texts are handpicked, neglecting the much larger number of dissimilarities. This gives rise to the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.

            b) neglecting other options besides literacy dependency. For instance, similarities between texts can be caused by the 2 authors – independently – using a similar source.

            c) accumulating a large number of similarities, each with a low probability of dependency, to argue that they add up to a high probability of dependency of the texts (see the example of flipping 100 coins). Probabilities just don’t add up that way.

            In the end, it remains a judgment call, but we can use some quantitative methods (statistical techniques) to check our opinions against.

            1. Can you expand on your point a? Are you suggesting that if a count of dissimilarities outnumbering similarities would count against a literary relationship? If so, what sort of cut-off point would you be thinking of? Twice as many similarities to dissimilarities? What counts as a similarity? Presumably it cannot be two identical points or they would not be so much similar as identical. How do you determine similarity? What sorts of things should we look for as similar — visual images? emotional states? connecting words? natural objects? celestial? topographic?

              My point is that you appear to be looking for an assessment based on quantifiable measures. “Much larger numbers” . . . . I am trying to raise problems when we use quantitative measures as the grounds for our argument. I am not saying quantitative measures don’t ever have a place, but if we rely upon them as some sort of “criteria” then I think we need to think through exactly what we mean first.

            2. While I like the idea of a statistical approach, I don’t think it should be the deciding factor in deciding if a story is dependent on another (or both on a third source).

              The reason is simple: sometimes the differences between the stories are the entire point of the story! In the case of my above example, how do you count the fact that Solomon didn’t end up cutting the baby in half (didn’t use the sword) against the fact that Alexander cut the knot (did use his sword)?

              Is that point that counts against the story being dependent, or for the story being dependent, but with a different outcome showing a different strength in a young leader meant for great things?

              In almost every case, I think there are reasons to think a story is dependent on another or not, and of course I can’t be certain.

              However, my research project is about another data set (non-biblical) where we can test hypothetical midrash/mimesis connections between stories where we are certain the authors DID intend to “copy” another story. It turns out that all the things that we see in the Bible and suspect might be dependent stories are exactly the same kind of things we find in more modern epic literature and storytelling.

              In the case of context dependent error and incongruity resolution, this is a very handy tool to prove that one story is copied from another, also taking into account work by MacDonald and others as applied to Biblical criticism.

              So if the technique works on one or more non-Biblical data set, it’s more likely that when those techniques are reapplied to the Bible, the outcome can be more secure.

              1. I was about to point again to Homer’s epics and the Aeneid. Virgil’s poem is indeed a “reverse” of Homer’s works in structure, and the details of character and events are very “unlike”, — the differences are the entire point of the Aeneid. But no-one can seriously suggest the Aeneid was not using Homer as a source. It is by the differences that this relationship is most evident. It is not differences themselves that are decisive, as you say, but the meaning of those differences, the explanation for them, that becomes very clear on the hypothesis of a literary relationship.

              2. I never intended to say that a statistical approach should be the deciding factor; but statistics can help us to avoid common pitfalls.

                The basis for determining dependency is some set of criteria that establish a literary relationship between texts.
                The published sets of criteria (e.g. Allison, Clark and MacDonald) focus on the similarities, rather than the dissimilarities. In doing so, we clearly recognise that authors may introduce dissimilarities in related stories; they can attempt to hide the relationship, or draw attention to it.

                We would be in dire straits if we would depend on dissimilarities to establish literary dependence: we then end up with a situation where we see dependency when texts show similarities, and we see dependency when texts show dissimilarities! That doesn’t help us forward.

                The similarities remain the basis for establish literary relationship: once dependence is established, we can investigate how we can explain the dissimilarities. This applies to texts like Homer and the Aeneid as well, where the similarities are abundant: Virgil uses important formal characteristics that are similar to Homer, such as the use of hexameter verse, its book division, the lists of genealogies etc. The first part of the storyline of the Aeneid mimics the Odyssey, the second part the Illiad. Odysseus and Aeneas are both royalty, both have a God as enemy, storms blow them off course, both their aim is to go home, they visit the same places with similar adventures (e.g. Scylla and Charybdis), etc. etc.

                These are all such strong similarities, in form, theme, and detail, that they suffice to establish dependency, we do not need to explain away the dissimilarities. It is a bonus if we can.

                The case for Solomon and Alexander is much weaker: the main similarity is that something is (almost) being cut by a sword; not a very distinguishing feature. I don’t think that invoking the (many and important) dissimilarities helps us to establish dependency.

              3. It appears you are trying to have it both ways, Bob. Your list of similarities between Homer and Virgil is by your own statistical arguments invalid. Lots of ancient stories had a tussle between a god and hero, even in the Bible. Lots of stories had royalty as heroes, etc etc etc etc. But all you are doing is looking at similarities and ignoring the overwhelmingly vast number of differences with each of your points.

                “Aiming to go home” is a comparison? There must be thousands of stories with such a theme, even in ancient times. Storms blowing them off course? That’s such a common event in all times and places it is meaningless to use as a pointer to borrowing. Visiting the same places with similar adventures? No way — what happened to each at the same places was totally different (e.g. your own example, Scylla and Charybdis).

                Moreover, you have overlooked the argument classicists identify to establish a relationship. Hexameter had nothing to do with it. It is the meaning and significance of the totality what happened/didnt’t happen in the regions of Scylla and Charybdis, how one was favoured by a god and the other opposed by a god, that the differences explain. You cannot compare the two events statistically to establish the relationship at all.

                We have transvaluation. That’s what the differences, not the similarities, between Homer and Virgil are all about. Recall MacDonald’s explanation of this term. That’s what explains why Odysseus had a great adventure being opposed by a god at Scylla and Charybdis and Aeneas had no adventure and nothing but smooth sailing being favoured by a goddess at that same region. There is no way you can use statistics to say that one story is indebted to the other there.

                An modern uninformed reader would never recognize that Virgil had Homer in mind at all when he has Aeneas sail smoothly beyond Scylla and Charybdis. It is only a deep study of the two and an awareness of the conscious role of ancient literary techniques among ancient authors that enable us to see what Virgil is doing.

                And ditto to each of your other points which merely fall for the same Texas sharpshooter fallacy that you are suggesting is at the base of comparisons between the Pentateuch and Greek literature.

      3. … the story of Solomon’s Baby Cleaving (Judgment of Solomon) make sense? It really doesn’t make sense at all. In no real world does cutting a baby in half even approach a sensible outcome….

        It doesn’t make sense if viewed literally, but does convey a concrete message/moral when treated as reductio ad absurdum. In the same way, we understand the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, without having to presume anyone ever did just that. No wonder split the baby is also a common metaphor — it ‘makes sense’ today just as it did back when.

        The author of 1 Kings was concerned with imparting nuggets of wisdom, not weaving a plausible story.

        1. Again, it comes down to genre. Are we reading history? If you admit it’s not literal, then is it just fiction? Is it just made up?

          If the story doesn’t go back to real actions by a real life king, when was the legend invented? Was invented centuries after the time it is set (like most of the stories of King Arthur)?

          1. I think we can all agree this particular story is purely fictional.

            Now, was it made out of whole cloth, or dependent on the Gordian Knot episode, as you suggest? I am not persuaded by the latter, as: 1) it unnecessarily multiplies causes; 2) the ‘cutting by sword’ commonality seems far too tenuous. As with my baby & bathwater comparison, must we posit some earlier water-based story?

            Note that I am overall very amenable to the proposition that the OT is heavily dependent upon Greek literature and philosophy.

            1. In this case, there’s nothing much to add. You think the Wisdom of Solomon makes enough sense in its own right, calling it good for “nuggets of wisdom”, that’s cool.

              Personally I’ve never thought it makes sense. And lots of other people also think it doesn’t make sense! For example, here’s a comedy routine by John Mulaney about it:

              One way it’s clear that people overlook plot holes in a story is if the story is based on an already known story, and they can gloss over the plot holes because the other story lets them make that leap more easily.

              So finding plot holes and errors and inconsistencies in story is only the first step. If we can find a very well known story that helps a reader gloss over those plot holes, then it might be a sign that the story was told in a world where the better known story already exists.

              As one example, look at all the parody movies that come out after a popular movie hits it big. Scary Movie is way easier to explain as a story that came in a world where Scream already existed. Space Balls only makes sense in a world where Star Wars already exists.

              To me the Wisdom of Solomon reads more like a parody or satire of the Gordian Knot story than an independent story. It’s subjective, but I’m far from the first person to find the Wisdom of Solomon dumb, and I only bring up the connection in these blog comments because it only makes sense if the Old Testament has a late date of composition.

              1. SEVEN SAMURAI > MAGNIFICENT SEVEN > THREE AMIGOS sprang to my mind, so I get your point about derivative stories. 🙂

                I just don’t see such a link between the two stories in question, beyond a superficial, ‘solving a “knotty” problem via a sword cut’. With the Gordian knot (also surely apocryphal, and intended to convey Alexander’s boldness), Alexander eschews ‘deep’ thinking in favor of direct force. On the contrary, Solomon’s solution to another seemingly intractable problem is the height of ‘braininess’. He only pretends to advise cutting the baby in half, to indirectly get a read on the two women’s minds. To keep with our modern analogies, it’s Dirty Harry vs. Brenda Lee Johnson.

                You & others see something there I don’t. Where we differ is whether a palpably unrealistic story could have legs without the crutch of an earlier (in this case, also unrealistic) story. I could, of course, be missing something. No biggie, as I think we are generally on the same page.

                In any case, showing positively that a certain pericope is derived from an earlier source — especially a fictional source — positively belies the historicity of that pericope. But other means also exist to achieve that end. As you note, it is downright preposterous to assume that the baby-splitting judgement ever actually happened. Common sense here suffices.

                Also, the hypothesis, that the OT is in large part based on Hellenic sources, is a cumulative case. This, that, or the other proposed link may fall, yet not negate the overall weight of evidence. I look forward with interest to the further exposition of this hypothesis.

                Thanks for the fascinating discussion.

  5. Referring to the closing sentence in my previous comment, I would like to clarify that I do not suggest that we can decide on dependency by a quantitative method (that I’m aware of). As I mentioned above, I see dependency as a continuous degree of probability, derived from similarity criteria and supported by statistics. I do not propose any similarity criteria in particular, since many have been produced in the literature. Which ones to use is a choice based on the type of text that is being investigated, and your own preference; I happen to like McDonald’s similarity criteria, but I have no way of telling which criteria are ‘best’.

    Hence, I do not think in terms of quantitative cut-off points that can be accurately (and reproducibly) calculated. But statistics can help us to avoid pitfalls, such as the sharpshooter fallacy. Perhaps I an best explain by example: Gmirkin says that “David the famous warrior was also renowned as a musician …… David had the attributes of a well-rounded educated Athenian.” This is one of his arguments leading him to suggest that authors of the Hebrew Scriptures were familiar with Plato and other Greek authors.

    My challenges in this argument are two fold:

    1) How probable is it that an Israelite King is characterised as a musician? If the authors of the Hebrew bible modelled their kings after educated Athenians, you would expect a high probability.
    A rough count of the Hebrew bible leads me to a total of just over 40 kings in the 2 Hebrew kingdoms. Only 2 of these (David and Solomon) are described as gifted musicians. This is roughly 5% of all kings in the Hebrew bible. So if you would randomly pick a king from the Hebrew bible, it is unlikely that he would be described as a gifted musician, or – as Gmrikin says – described as a rounded educated Athenian.

    2) How probable is it that David would be described as a musician per se, without the suggested dependency (null hypothesis)? In the Hebrew bible, the vast majority of the musicians are associated with the Jerusalem Temple(s) and the tabernacle. The Levites (priests) are invariably described as musicians. The first Temple is strongly associated with David and Solomon; they are both king and priest. Hence, it is plausible that they are described as musicians, solely because of their connection with the Temple.

    Now I don’t say that we can exclude dependency on the basis of these statistics, but I would argue that the low probability of a Hebrew king being described as an (Athenian) musician, and the likelihood that David would be described as a musician (because it is consistent with the context of the Hebrew bible itself) leads me to think that the probability of dependency is rather low.

    I could make similar arguments for the other similarities (clothing etc.). But a large number of events (dependencies) with low probability don’t add up to an event (dependency) with high probability; that would be a statistical fallacy.

    A bit longish, but I hope this illustrates what I’m arguing here.

    1. A quick answer: your two numbered points are contradictory. They don’t fit in the same argument.

      David is not “just one of 40 kings” but the most special king. Like Saul he has a cool origin story not based on a hereditary title. He reigns for 40 years. He’s not in the same category as 38 other Hebrew kings.

      That’s like saying “We have 38 horses and two zebras. So if you would randomly pick an animal from the paddock, it is unlikely that he would be described as a stripey?”

      But this is missing the bigger picture. The point isn’t “Does this story depend on this other story?” Here’s the real question:

      “Was the Old Testament was it written to be the foundational document of a newly established nation?”

      If so, it was written later than traditionally accepted, in a time when all scholars intimately knew the Greek works of philosophy, history and literature.

      And if that were the case, there is no doubt that all readers would know Plato, would know Homer, would know the stories of Alexander, etc etc. We would expect to find, in a book that was created to be the foundation document for the new nation, allusions and dependencies to these Greek writings.

      If this was not the case, and the Old Testament wasn’t a foundational document but instead a more traditional history of an existing and established nation, and the Old Testament predated the spread of Greek into the territories it was written… well, in this case it would have no dependencies on Greek writings, and instead have much more in common with writings from 1000 BCE in those territories.

      As in all historical criticism: first define the genre.

  6. My numbered points address different ‘if’ statements in you comment.

    1) “If it was written later than traditionally accepted, in a time when all scholars intimately knew the Greek works of philosophy, history and literature…… We would expect to find, allusions and dependencies to these Greek writings.”
    My first point shows that we actually find only few of those “allusions”: only 5 % of the Hebrew kings are musicians. We would need more Hebrew kings to be musicians to substantiate that we “find allusions” about musicianship.

    2) “If ….the Old Testament ….was a more traditional history of an existing and established nation…..it would have….much more in common with writings from 1000 BCE in those territories.” I show that indeed the exceptional case of David being a musician has much in common with other Hebrew texts, which tend to describe priests as musicians (and David being both priest and king). [NB I’m not sure to which other writings you refer; best to see if David’s story is consistent within the Hebrew culture itself].

    Formally, I would feel that your ‘if statements’ make sense in relations to this main hypothesis: IF the Hebrew text depends on Greek texts, THEN we would expect allusions and similarities. However, the reverse statement doesn’t necessarily hold: IF we find allusions and similarities, THEN we can NOT conclude that there is dependency. We need to compare the probability of the hypothesis of literary dependency with other hypotheses; such as, the allusions are due to pure chance (statistically probable without dependency); or, the texts are both dependent on an older source. Or allusions have been introduced later (e.g. by scribes, editors, translators etc.). Only when the dependency hypothesis has a higher probability than any other we can think of, can we conclude that there – probably – is a literary dependency.

  7. See, this is exactly the kind of discussion I didn’t want to have. You are hung up with similarities between two stories, and the number of things that are similar and the number of things that aren’t similar.

    To reiterate, I don’t think numbers of similarities vs dissimilarities is as important as you keeps saying. And with my examples, all you keep saying is that you don’t think the numbers add up. But all you do is keep saying that.

    I’ll ask again, what would convince you that a story is dependent on another? And you have to say more than “statistical analysis” because in all these cases you’ve not done any statistical analysis. You have to say a method, lay out your criteria, go through the entire book or passage line by line, make calls on every element, theme, name, object, reference, time, land, etc, etc, etc. Then you can come back and say the numbers don’t add up to…. to what?

    For that to make any difference, you then have to do the same experiment on two different control groups. One would be on two sets of stories where you can prove by external means that there is no dependency, and then you must do the whole experiment again on two sets of stories where you can prove there IS dependency.

    After all that you could make some statement like “In the case of the Greek literature found in the Library of Alexandria and the Old Testament (of which we have no evidence of until after the time we know that Hebrew scholars visited Alexandria), the statistical analysis shows it is more like the two sets of non-dependent stories than the two sets of dependent stories.”

    But that takes a lot of work, right? Until you or someone else does the work, it’s easy enough to keep lobbing lines like “statistically it doesn’t make add up”.

    So until that kind of study is completed, we’ve got to do our best to look at the data we have, at least to be able to propose a set of questions.

    Those questions may end up being more likely to be true, or more likely to be false. In the case of this original blog post and my own example, I must admit I don’t care either way! But to just dismiss all the questions we might have on a statistical analysis that hasn’t even been completed seems to miss the whole point of studying this topic in the first place.

    1. I agree with much of what you say. Indeed, “Those questions may end up being more likely to be true, or more likely to be false.”. In other words, we are talking about probabilities, not yes/no questions. Hence, the issue boils down to the methods of determining these probabilities.

      The usual approach is to define a set of criteria. This has been tried for centuries to derive literary depenceny, and where has it got us? We are still stuck with the ‘Synoptic Problem’, and there is no agreement on the depencence of the gospel of John.

      Why? On the one hand, different scholars evaluate the same criteria differently, coming up with different conclusions. On the other hand, there is no standard set of criteria, and different criteria lead to different conclusions.

      Ideally, we wouild like to draw conclusions on literary relationships that are independent of the person doing the evaluation (or his mood of the day).

      One way to do this is to base the evaluation on a set of data that are undisputed, and apply rigorously defined methods to come up with a conclusion. This is basically what Richard Carrier has been promoting with Bayesian statistics. This is also what I suggested here, without going into details of the method.

      I appreciate that mathematics and statistics may look daunting to those more familiar with history, religion etc. But you don’t need not a computer – not even a calculator – to apply Bayesian statistics. See for instance Carrier’s ““Bayes’ Theorem for Beginners: Formal Logic and Its Relevance to Historical Method”, or his ‘Proving History’.

      I accept that my analysis of the Solomon-Alexander depedency has been incomplete and sketchy so far. If there is interest, I’m willing to spend more timne on it to do a more thorough analysis.

      1. Criteria seems to be a preoccupation of Biblical studies and is a poor substitute for a familiarity with how ancient authors more generally used sources. Thomas Nelligan in The Quest for Mark’s Sources writes (with my emphasis):

        There is also a huge overlap between the techniques of rewritten Bible, midrash and the Greco-Roman techniques discussed earlier. The term and categories set out by scholars are largely inadequate, particularly when dealing with Jewish methods. Hays claimed that these categories simply do not have the power with which to probe adequately. 75 Why, however, are these terms plagued by a lack of clear definition in biblical studies? Studies of classical texts do not appear to be hampered by such basic issues. The answer could lie in the tendency of biblical scholars to get stuck in “group-think” which over-estimates the historicity of biblical texts and downplays their literary artistry. Far too much emphasis is placed on the historical Jesus and less on the literary Jesus. 76 However, the tide is turning.

        Nelligan, Thomas P.. The Quest for Mark’s Sources: An Exploration of the Case for Mark’s Use of First Corinthians (Kindle Locations 458-465). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

        Amen. The real fear appears to be that applying the normative methods used in other areas of ancient history to biblical studies could threaten the basic assumptions that the Bible should be trusted as a more or less genuinely historical record. Whole ideologies, belief-systems, national and personal identities depend on that belief.

        God forbid that the methods used by historians in non-biblical fields should ever encroach upon biblical studies!

        1. OK, let’s see where we get of we apply “the normative methods used in other areas of ancient history”. I assume that you refer to the Historical Method, as you decribe it in your own post


          “A historian needs to establish some fundamental facts about the sources at hand before he or she starts pulling out data from them to make a historical narrative or argument.”. From the requirements that you mention, applied to the story about Alexander and the Gordian knot, I’ll only deal with the provenance of the documents for now:

          1: “We need to know when they were written”. We know this by approximation. The legend of the Gordian knot is preserved in only 4 Greek or Latin sources: Lucius Flavius Arrianus (Arrian of Nicomedia) c.87 – after 145, Quintus Curtius Rufus †53 CE, Plutarch of Chaeronea 46-c.120, and Marcus Iunianius Iustinus (Justin) c. 2nd century CE. These authors lived more than three centuries after the events they describe!

          Aristobulus and Marsyas of Philippi were contemporaries of Alexander. Their writings do not survive, but they are quoted by the more recent sources. The legend itself was possibly of greater antiquity and local to Anatolia.

          There are two versions of how Alexander undid the knot; Arrian, Justin, Plutarch, and Curtius imply that Alexander cut the knot. Arrian and Plutarch also cite an alternative version of the story (from Aristobulus), relating that Alexander did not cut the knot but instead took out the peg that fastened the knot in place. As a detail of the legend, cutting the knot illustrates that Alexander could only solve the problem by force; whereas unfastening the peg signaled his superior intelligence. Very different messages in the 2 versions!

          In sum, some form of the story around Alexander and the Gordian knot was probably written in the 3rd century BCE. However, it is probable that these primary sources did not describe Alexander cutting the knot, but untying it by lifting the peg. The cutting of the knot may have originated centuries later.

          Conclusion: I think that we have a pretty good picture of the authorship and provenance of Alexander’s story: the surviving Greek versions postdate (1-2nd centruy CE) the date that Gmirkin proposes for authors of the Hebrew Bible, ca 270 BCE. Hence, if we would feel there is a literary dependencny on these texts, then the suriving version of the Gordian knot story may well depend on Solomon’s wisdom!

          The primary sources (now lost) appear to disagree on the key element on how the knot was untied. If Alexander’s story was about lifiting the peg (as primary sources appear to have said) then it becomes increasingly difficult to establish any relatonship with Solomon’s (almost) cutting of the baby because of lack of common elements (knot, baby, cutting etc.)

          1. If one accepts the argument you propose for the much later date of the origin of the story of Alexander cutting the knot, then great. (One can propose alternative arguments but I’m prepared to accept yours in order to address the point you are making.) It removes the Solomon story to being of an unknown provenance. I have no problem with that. I don’t see how this is relevant to the broader question of the post, however.

          2. To address the second point of your argument, “Hence, if we would feel there is a literary dependencny on these texts, then the suriving version of the Gordian knot story may well depend on Solomon’s wisdom!” — how would one argue such a case?

            How would the differences in the Alexander story be explained by the Solomon story? (I can see how there is explanatory power in the former scenario and that has been addressed in previous comments, but not this one that you propose.)

            How would one argue for the likelihood of the originators of the Alexander story being inspired by the biblical one?

            Would not your scenario of reverse relative dating be more likely to point to both stories originating with another unknown source or sources?

            1. To add one more implication here: if explanatory power is found to be in a certain direction (solomon details are explained if the alexander story was prior), then that actually becomes an argument in favour of revising the date of the alexander text. This is what happens in biblical scholarship when scholars grapple with the synoptic problem. If there are variations in text 1 and text 2, then in order to determine the likely chronological relationship between them, one looks to see which chronological order has the greater ability to explain the differences.

              So in the case of the solomon and alexander stories, we can see how details of the solomon story are explained if the alexander one were a source, but I don’t know how we could explain the alexander differences if it used the solomon account as its source.

  8. I suggest that an elephant in the room here is the perception that the Bible is being robbed of its Jewish heritage as traditionally understood. One finds a “similarity” in response whenever there is an alternative view presented to the Jewish narrative, not only with respect to religious origins and Judaism, but even with respect to history since, especially in recent generations and the world today. Such studies, whether studies related to modern or ancient Israel, whether about the literary sources or the “facts on/in/under the ground”, have been and are rejected by many of the same people as somehow a threat to the traditional identities of Israel or Jews.

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